Ossus Library Index
Fantasy Index


A novel by Sean Russell
(2002, HarperTorch)

Swan's War, book 1

Three cousins travel the river south in search of adventure, but find magic tributaries, pursuit by men-at-arms, and a princess fleeing a political marriage.


-- First reading (paperback)
September 6th to October 8th, 2018


I’m in this trilogy for the long burn. The interest here is in the history of the old kingdom, and the way the characters interact with each other. I think there are a lot of hints of what the old kingdom used to harbor, and that maybe it’s waking up. But there is very little story here, and it doesn’t beckon me much when I’m not reading.

Spoiler review:

As a fantasy novel, there was a lot of history in this story. Unfortunately, the story of traveling down the river was very slow to unravel, even though they were attacked without warning several times. The three cousins, Tam, Baore and Fynnol, each had their own personalities, though they were so clueless most of the time, and their ignorance was annoying at times.

Tam was the thinker, and he held the group together. When they met Cynndl, the Seeker of the fairy species of this series, they brought him aboard willingly, and he proved to be an asset. Even so, he mostly reacted, and didn’t have much extra knowledge of the river, even though his species travels the parallel road all the time.

The river is magical, and has hidden passages. The travelers see this first from the man who claims to be trapped, and then for themselves as they land on a hidden island (where they get a magic flute), and somehow escape their pursuers (who traveled the main river). Baore is nearly killed, but saved by a mermaid-like creature, who demands a deadly payment from him, though he manages to convince her that he isn’t the kind of person that she wants -so he agrees to deliver her to another who she can manipulate.

There isn’t much to say about the trip down the river, except that it yields unexpected surprises.

The parallel story deals with Elise, a princess who is a pawn of the royals in this kingdom. The head of the Renne clan is in a perpetual state of war with the other powerful family, the Wills. But one wants to make peace, while the other plots against it. This pits the Renne against each other as they try to murder their leader. It also sends Elise on the run, to keep her out of the hands of the Wills, who will use her to legitimize an old warrior’s claim to the throne.

Alaan is the story’s Gandalf figure, manipulating Elise and her pursuers, as well as navigating the magical pathways of the landscape and the river. He helps Elise escape, though his plans go awry in the end. On the other hand, her blind father, king of the Wills, but pushed aside by his more capable brother, appeals to the minstrel and the elf-like species. Elise is captured after meeting with Tam and his cousins on the river in their sinking boat, but manages a spectacular escape with help from Tam at the costume ball announcing her marriage to the prince.

The plan to murder the head of the Renne family is thwarted, and Elise manages to escape. But she’s still a pawn of Alaan and the others. Tam and his cousins are involved. And the three spirits of the old kingdom have been released, one of them thanks to Baore.

It looks like Alaan is one of the Knights of the Vow, who were overrun hundreds of years ago because they apparently broke their vow. Some survived, in secret, holding onto the nearly-lost knowledge. He communicates with his old teacher, who also taught the main bad guy, taking him in and showing him their magic ways, before being betrayed.

There is way more history to this world, which touches all aspects of every storyline. The author did a good job of interweaving it with the river, Tam’s old village, the spirits, and Elise’s manipulations. Some of it is ancient history, which destroyed the world. More is mid-history, dealing with the feuds between the two families. And still more is much more recent, as an uneasy peace is kept between them. I thought the use of jousting to replace battlefields was a good way to show how useless the feud actually is. Yet family members on both sides want to keep it alive, at any cost.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t overly fond of the characters, who did little more than act surprised or perplexed at whatever they encountered. That made the story move very slow, and I didn’t get a sense of what was at stake. Still, it’s a decent setup for the cataclysm that will undoubtedly unravel in the later books.


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